Monthly Archives: December 2020

“Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna” by Billy Wilder and edited by Noah Isenberg— Billy Wilder’s Early Writings

Wilder, Billy. “Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna”, edited by Noah Isenberg, Princeton University Press, 2021.

Billy Wilder’s Early Writings

Amos Lassen

Before Billy Wilder became the screenwriter and director of such iconic films as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like It Hot”, he was a freelance reporter, first in Vienna and then in Weimar Berlin. “Billy Wilder on Assignment” is a collection of  more than fifty articles, translated into English for the first time that Wilder  published in magazines and newspapers between September 1925 and November 1930. We read of Wilder’s time as a hired dancing companion in a posh Berlin hotel and his dispatches from the international film scene, to his astute profiles of writers, performers and what he had to say about political figures. Here are the fresh insights into his creative mind.

Wilder’s early writings include cultural essays, interviews, and reviews and are filled with wit and intelligence just as were his later Hollywood screenplays. At the same time, he casts light into the dark corners of Vienna and Berlin between the wars. Wilder covered everything from big-city sensations to jazz performances, film and theater openings, dance, photography, and all kinds of mass entertainment. He wrote about the most colorful figures of the day including Charlie Chaplin, Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Prince of Wales, actor Adolphe Menjou, director Erich von Stroheim, and the Tiller Girls dance troupe. With an introduction, commentary (and edited by) film historian Noah Isenberg, here is the Wilder we did not know.  Shelley Frisch translated so that we can gain historical and biographical context. There are also rare photos that show capture Wilder and his circle during these formative years. Here is the early voice of the man who went on to become a great auteur and whosebackground as a journalist had a direct relationship on his later career as a director and screenwriter.

“The Ancient Hours” by Michael Bible— Religion and Violence

Bible, Michael. “The Ancient Hours”,  Melville House, 2020.

Religion and Violence

Amos Lassen

“Harmony, North Carolina is a typical town—full of saints and sinners you can’t tell apart…” In the past there have beenlynchings and shootings; mob violence and vigilante justice. The summer of 2000, however, was different.

In “The Ancient Hours, author Michael Bible looks at a tragic but all-too-American story of victims, witnesses, perpetrators, and the condemned who live, love and hate together. Southern literature has been filled with stories of religion and violence. Bible uses the horrors of that literature to bring us this story that begins with a group of men retelling the tragedy of Harmony.

One Sunday morning in 2000, Iggy, a disturbed teenager, walked into a service at First Baptist Church and poured gasoline on himself and struck a match. His friend Johnny ran to him as fire destroyed the sanctuary and killed 25 congregants. Somehow Iggy, Johnny’s s mother and a 4-year-old boy survived.

The novel then goes back and forth across time looking at family secrets, sexuality and social grids. Iggy narrates several chapters from his prison cell in 2006 where he awaits his death penalty and execution. His notes are the back story of the novel. He speaks about himself and his friends are outsiders and the things he did as a young man. The Baptists of Harmony sent him to rehab camp, where he was forced to repent and engage in fundraising for mission trips and it was with these that his idea of setting himself on fire came about.

We also have stories of others affected by Iggy’s crime. There are shifts between timelines and we see calamity in all of its forms. Could it be that the real guilt rests with those who run the church? Here we see outsiders searching for meaning in their lives yet thwarted in the name of religion. At its most basic, this is the story of the desire for family and what people are willing to sacrifice for the community.  

“ONCE UPON A RIVER”— A Native American Coming-of-Age Story

“ONCE UPON A RIVER”

A Native American Coming-of-Age Story

Amos Lassen

Margo Crane (Kenadi DelaCerna) is a Native American teenager in 1977. She lives in a cabin with her father Bernard (Tatanka Means) in rural Michigan and thinks that she is a wonder with a rifle.

When Margo learns of the death of her father Bernard, she takes her family canoe down the Stark River to find her estranged mother Luanne (Lindsay Pulsipher), who abandoned them for reasons that are not clear to us.

 

 

Margo is not the ideal person. We learn that she had sex with her uncle Cal (Murray Coburn Goss) and this led to her father killing Cal. Then Cal’s angry son Billy (Sam Straley) retaliated by killing Bernard. Margo, then, turns for help to Brian (Dominic Bogart), but his i friend Paul (Evan Linder) appears and she reconsiders and decides to act on her own. She takes her rifle along and uses it to hunt for food and protection.

She meets Will ( Ajuwak Kapashesit), shares a meal with him and makes love with him and becomes pregnant.  Going back to the river again, she meets Smoke (John Ashton), an elderly man who is ill and is advised to move on after staying for a while to take care of Smoke. She eventually finds selfish mother (Lindsay Pulsipher), who tries to explain why she left the family.

We see Margo’s  growing pains and how deeply affected she is by her situation and, by and large, this is quite a depressing film. There are several comedic moments but the story meanders and at times is hard to follow.

This is director Haroula Rose’s debut feature film and it is filled with laconic, intense dialogue expressing the desperation of the characters living in rural Michigan. The film features Kenadi DelaCerna’s beautiful performance as Margo Crane and the rest of the cast is also excellent. Conflicted relationships  are brought to the forefront and provide the center that complements the rustic river scenes that show us a natural word that is more submissive than vivid. The story is told in the tradition of Huck Finn.

Margo’s life is disrupted when she becomes part of a family tragedy that causes  her to escape and to travel upriver on a journey to find her estranged mother, the only family she has left. We see an individual in nature through medium shots that keep a focus on family dynamics and other forms of personal interaction. Margo is independent minded, a young grown-up that has lived her life among confused, dissatisfied school kids and their parents that are equally astray. However, once she begins her journey, she seems to be in harmony with her element. She finds temporary guardians, who, unlike the locals from whom she is escaping, treat her with respect and accept her ways of being an ace shot with a rifle and proficient with living off the land.

“OPEN UP TO ME” — A Journey

“OPEN UP TO ME”

A Journey

Amos Lassen

Finnish director Simo Halinen “Open Up to Me” is a film  about transgender Maarit who is mistakenly mistaken for a psychotherapist by an overwrought man. Because Maarit likse her “patient”, she keeps in touch with him and something beautiful even seems to be on tap. Maarit (formerly Mauritz) is trans but we don’t really see that. The truth soon emerges, but at a time when Maarit and her patient Sami already have a strong bond. They not only share a hidden loneliness  and love for football. This is a film about identity and accepting the foreign— the strange in ourseves and the strange others.

Maarit (Leea Klemola) has transitioned from male to female and is now trying to find her new place in life, something not made easier by the fact that she’s now estranged from her former wife and daughter. She wants to help people and so when an unexpected opportunity arises when she almost accidentally poses as a therapist for teacher Sami (Peter Franzén), who is experiencing a marital crisis.

She quickly admits what she’s done, partly because she has feelings for Sami, which soon results in the two of them beginning an affair. Maarit also gets a job as school counsellor, helping young people, but also having to face the fact that whenever there’s an issue many are going to be trying to find reasons why it’s about her being a transsexual.

In the past.  most gay-themed films were solely about the character’s homosexuality but now more movies are show that it is just an aspect of  personality. “Open Up To Me” could  best be described as ‘post-trans’. While Maarit’s identity is crucial to her journey, it’s presented as just one facet of her life and search for happiness.

“NELSON ALGREN LIVE”— Remembering Nelson Algren

“NELSON ALGREN LIVE”

Remembering Nelson Algren

Amos Lassen

Director Oscar Bucher takes us back to the life of Nelson Algren, one of the most neglected American writers and also one of the best loved. He wrote “about the dark underbelly of post-war America before it was ever fashionable to do so.” Algren is best known for the novel “The Man with the Golden Arm” and was a writer of the down-and-outer, about his Chicago and he boldly depicted the life of the city’s drunks, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, corrupt politicians, and hoodlums. On what would have been his 100th birthday, a group of actors and writers came together at Steppenwolf Theater to premiere Nelson Algren Live-an onstage reading and celebration of his life and work in his own words. This is the film version of that event in which Barry Gifford is Algren’s voice and Willem Dafoe gives as stunning performance of a punch-drunk prizefighter that brings us a newly unearthed story

We have a reading from some previously unpublished Algren work and see Banks; Barry Gifford; Don DeLillo; and, in a mere cameo, “playing” Algren’s great pal, Studs Terkel; Algren’s last editor, Dan Simon, who runs Seven Stories Press; and actors Kathy Scambiatterra, Randall Newsome, Dafoe and Steppenwolf’s then-artistic director Martha Lavey.

The film is built around a series of interviews Algren gave in the early 1960s to writer H.E.F. “Shag” Donohue, later published as “Conversations with Nelson Algren.” Algren talks about a lot of things, and though he shows his  legendary sense of humor.

With a jazzy soundtrack and dozens of photographs by Art Shay, Algren’s great friend and companion on journeys through the city’s wild and sordid side, the film pulls us in immediately. Those who have never read or heard of Algren will enjoy it through the wonderful performances. Dafoe’s Blackie Cavanaugh, the drunken boxer at the heart and soul of a 1939 short story titled “The Lightless Room” is stunning. Dafoe delivers the sad details of a life poorly-lived in haunting lines.

“BILLIE”— Remembering Lady Day

“BILLIE”

Remembering Lady Day

Amos Lassen

Billie Holiday was one of the most influential singers of her generation. She worked within the music industry for over twenty-five years and had an iconic voice. She was christened “Lay Day” by friend and collaborator Lester Young and began her career singing in nightclubs in Harlem. By the late 1930s and early 1940s she had become a renowned mainstream artist. She had worked with Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Teddy Wilson but her personal life often got in the way of her career.  

Holiday suffered an abusive childhood which later brought on drink and drug addictions that had great impact on both her personal and professional life. During the 1970s, journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl recorded many hours of interviews with people in Holiday’s life but died before being able to do anything with them. Now James Erskine gives us a new documentary on Billie that uses these tapes as a foundation and we get aloo at her career that we have never seen before.

Erskine tells Holiday’s story through key testimonies giving us a picture of a deeply troubled and incredibly talented artist. We’re also hear a lot of her music and the film is a fascinating picture of a singer whose off-stage life often overshadowed her voice.

Born Eleanor Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915, Holiday’s career spanned 47 years. Billie’s Holiday’s often troubled existence is seen through her vocal style and sensual ability to use phrasing and tempo.

The interviews and recordings give new life to what we know about the singer who lost her life after several decades of heartache. Heartache is the theme of  her repertoire yet there were also more upbeat tunes about love. Her life was filled with poverty, misogyny and racism and this is the story of a woman who got the rough end of the deal in the music business. She lived  with gusto and courage, lamenting them in her songs that reflect back on her deep need to be loved by men and women. She used drugs and alcohol to numb her emotional pain. Her story was a sad one.

We see a  vicious pimp who remembers beating the women under his power in an era where such events were commonplace in the backstreets of New York and learn that the police were often as venal in their approach to Billie. They pursued her throughout her life because of her success as a black woman. She served time for drug abuse but on her release, she managed to fill Carnegie Hall.

We see the soulful emotion of a talented artist who by definition was subject to highs and lows in giving of herself to her music which we especially see in archival footage  and hear in live recordings.

The film is no hagiography. It is dark, somber, and soulful yet appropriate, though, as it ibrings together Holiday’s story with a true crime tale. While the film shows the difficulties of Holiday’s career and, especially, personal life, it also deepen her music and complements the story of her life.

“Secrets of Happiness” by Joan Silber— Discovering a Secret

Silber, Joan. “Secrets of Happiness”, Counterpoint, 2020.

Discovering a Secret

Amos Lassen

When Ethan discovers his father in New York has long had another, secret, family of a wife and two kids, the destinies of both families bring about surprise loyalties, love triangles, and inner strength.

Ethan is a young lawyer in New York who learns that his father has long kept a second family–a Thai wife and two kids who live in Queens. As a result of this revelation, Ethan’s mother spends a year working abroad, She returns and events introduce her to the other wife. Meanwhile, Ethan’s half-brothers are caught in their own lives. One brother is involved in minor delinquency and that has escalated. The other bother must travel to Bangkok to bail him out. Their mother continues to influence their lives. 

Ethan is caught in a love triangle of his own and as the interwoven fates of these two households become clear, we have woman helping an ill brother with an unreliable lover and a filmmaker with a childhood in Nepal. The story spans three continents and shows the ways people uses the resources they have to find happiness. We are thrust into the lives of a dozen people and hear their stories through the voices of six narrators— Ethan, Joe, Maribel, Rachel, Bud, and Tara.

It was the late 1980’s, Ethan actually had a crush on his friend Mike and was still keeping things to himself. He did not come out as gay until he was a freshman at college. His parents were accepting of both their son and his first new boyfriend, Robert. They, however, just did not understand it all.Later after the relationship ended, Ethan becomes a lawyer and moves in with a new boyfriend, Tony and we see that there is  much more to learn about Ethan and all the other characters. 

Ethan’s mother was  a teacher who supported her son but then something changed and she needed support herself.Something happened to Ethan’s father. Joe’s High School girlfriend, Veronica, wanted him to marry her but she marries Schuyler. Maribel, when we first meet her, was working on a documentary as a runner.Schuyler was on the camera crew. Maribel knew that he was going back to New York. She could see his wedding band, but she started dating him anyway. Schuyler had gotten married right out of college. Brother and sister Rachel and Saul have their own journeys. Then there is Bud, am enigmatic character about whom I will say almost nothing and Tara who spent her first nine years living in Kathmandu.
These stories include the themes of parenting, families, LGBTQIA, and relationships of all kinds, are filled with wisdom and surprises.

I found myself often wondering who the characters really were but they do all come together to care for a man dying of leukemia. By the end of the book we do learn thesecrets of happiness. 

“The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of a Nonbinary Childhood” by Krys Malcolm Belc— Looking at Gender Identity

Belc, Krys Malcolm. “The Natural Mother of the Child: A Memoir of a Nonbinary Childhood”, Counterpoint, 2021.

Looking at Gender Identity

Amos Lassen

Krys Malcolm Besc’s “The Natural Mother of the Child” is a collection of essays that look at how the experience of gestational parenthood–conceiving, birthing, and breastfeeding his son Samson eventually clarified his gender identity. Belc is a nonbinary, transmasculine parent who has studied the interplay between parenthood and gender. Giving birth to his son Samson clarified his gender identity and allowed him to project a more masculine self.

When his partner Anna adopted Samson, the legal documents listed Belc as “the natural mother of the child”, however.  By considering how the experiences contained under the topic of “motherhood” don’t fully fit with own experience, we look at the common perceptions of what it means to have a body and how that body can influence the perception of a family. The book directly examines the documentation often thought to constitute and in doing so, the author constructs a record of one’s life–childhood photos, birth certificates–Belc creates a new kind of life record, one that addresses his own ambivalence about the “before” and “after” of trans stories and these are different from his own life experiences. 

This is a book that will keep you reading in one sitting. Belc discusses his parenting experiences as a trans man and they are fascinating. This a book for all parents and also for anyone wo loves fine non-fiction.

“Proustian Uncertainties: On Reading and Rereading ‘In Search of Lost Time’” by Saul Friedlander— Revisiting Proust

Friedlander, Saul. “Proustian Uncertainties: On Reading and Rereading ‘In Search of Lost Time’”, Other Press, 2020.

Revisiting Proust

Amos Lassen

So many of us have struggled with reading Marcel Proust that often we have to read and reread him several times. Saul Freidlander in “Proustian Uncertainties” shows us how to do that successfully as we explore the idea of identity in both his own and Proust’s life. He looks at how

he sees himself, how this compares to what we know of Proust, and the importance is of these various points of commonality and divergence. Proust did not hide his homosexuality but the narrator did. Friedlander tried to marginalize his part-Jewish background while Proust did not. Does this say something about Friedlander’s position, and how he handle what he tries, but does not manage, to tuck away? These are major questions raised by the text and reflected in the text. The answers to this are hardly obvious as Friedlander reflects on time, on death, on memory, and on love.
 
Friedländer draws on his personal experience from a life spent investigating the ties between history and memory to offer a new perspective on “In Search of Lost Time”.

As a historian, Friedländer has always filled his scholarship with literary sensibility and we certainly see that here. He is the great historian of Nazi Germany and the Jews who also wrote  his own Proustian memoir, “When Memory Comes” and here heargues that Proust’s narrator is a “disembodied presence unlike that in any novel before” and it is here  that the relation of that presence to Proust himself makes his memories significant as well as a satire on the society of the time.

He shares his thoughts and presents theories that he has collected over many years about a book that he loves and does so by a careful study of the novel in which he points out the “continuities and contradictions that are hard to see from within the teeming thickets of Proust’s prose.”

Looking at the hidden depths of Marcel Proust’s novel, he gives us his personal thoughts on it. Here is time as reflected by Proust as he looks at“the historical controversies that have raged around so many of the topics he covers with untiring fair-mindedness”.

“Jew(ish): A Primer, A Memoir, A Manual, A Plea” by Matt Greene— Tradition and Modernity

Greene, Matt. “Jew(ish): A Primer, A Memoir, A Manual, A Plea”,  Little A , 2020.

Tradition and Modernity

Amos Lassen

Even though I am Jewish, I often find myself thinking about what that means. My religion is steeped in tradition that is sometimes at odds with the modern world within which I live. I have questions about so much about being Jewish and having been raised Orthodox, I was told not to ask. Now as a Reform Jew, I can ask but the traditions that I question have changed.

Growing up I wondered about that feeling of not being fully integrated into the activities of my classmates, about being told what I could and could not eat and about the strictness of the High Holidays.

Through stories and essays, Greene uses his insight into what he thinks the modern Jewish experience is made up of. He meditates on the nature of Jewish identity in the twenty-first century and on family religion and culture and he feel his humor and his anger. My questions were not answered necessarily but I gained a lot more to think about.

I had always felt that there was pressure to being Jewish— we were expected to be on the honor roll and well-dressed for all occasions, we were in a sense, on-display. I agree with some of what Greene has to say and I totally go in the other direction with some of his thoughts. I still don’t know what to think of about the book as a whole.

The prose is eloquent and respectful to a point but Greene and I come from different places and have different issues.  I am able to relate to quite a lot of what the author has experienced but because I am Jewish, I am allowed to disagree. After all, we are opinionated.

Greene is an irreligious Jew and that is fine but I wonder why he is so concerned over his Jewish identity since it is not a part of him as he boldly states. His ultimate question is whether he is still a Jew after having rejected Judaism. But then he says that he’s more comfortable being the only Jew in a room than in a room full of Jews.